On Man of Steel: About Expectations

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I want to start out by setting myself apart from the majority of reviewers on Man of Steel and admit my bias right away. I love Superman, and I am very new to loving Superman. I grew up watching Batman, the television series from the 60s in reruns, Batman: The Animated Series, and the now-much-criticized 90s Burton films. I loved The Hulk, Spiderman, some of The X-Men (mostly X-Women), I saw the Donner films, very little of Superman: The Animated Series, and even spent a little time on superdickery.com. Up until recently, I was at best apathetic and at worst completely unsettled by the character I perceived Superman to be.

“Classic” Clark Kent is not a character to whom plenty of people can relate. When the character was born, he was born into a social climate that only acknowledged one kind of person. This is a character who in order to stay relevant had to represent everyone, and to comic books in 1938 that meant he was a straight, white, heterosexual, healthy, American patriot of the patriarchy. A direct effect of the patriarchy is that the default traits and positions, the ones to which everyone can relate, are white, male, and straight. Everything else is an aberration, and early comics obviously weren’t trying to reach anyone else, and why not? In 1938, a white head of the household had the ultimate buying power.

This is the Man of Steel I have been familiar with, but I am not a comic book reader. Neither are most of the people writing reviews for this movie. We have expectations of this character, and our expectations have been violated. According to rotten tomatoes, around half of critics think that is a bad thing. I don’t. Lots of people have said that Synder and Goyer’s Man of Steel is not so much a comic book movie and more of a Sci-Fi thriller, and many critics have said that they think this is a bad thing. I don’t.

This is not an anti-geek position. I have been there through the entire comic book movie evolution of the last twenty years, for most of it, live and in person. I remember the summer that Batman was everywhere, I remember how blown away everyone was by the serious undertones in the first leg of the X-Men franchise, how “gloomy” and “dark” everyone said that the Sam Raimi Spiderman movies were, till the Nolan films irreparably raised the bar on everything, and the way Iron Man and the Avengers movies kept on meeting that bar until The Avengers came along and made a billion dollars. I’ve seen all this and I still don’t think that DC or Warner Brothers had any obligation to make a typical superhero movie or to draft a long sloppy kiss to the Donner movies that was Superman Returns. (Interestingly enough, most reviewers don’t actually so much as mention Superman Returns, or if they do, they tend to talk about it like it could actually be called a good example of a superhero movie, even today.)

This Clark Kent is not the one I know. He’s not a jock, he’s not a ladies man, he’s not a paternal figure who shakes his index finger at you when you’ve stepped out of line. He’s an adopted kid from Kansas who can’t even find a way to be who he is. He’s a mama’s boy in the best way, a working man, a drifter, and still authentically Midwestern enough to drink a beer in front of a football game (while he’s doing the dishes.) He’s also by a large margin the most objectified character in the movie. His body is more than once in this movie the object of another character’s sexual desire, while on the flip side he falls for Lois’ personality (but honestly, who doesn’t in this movie?), defends a coworker against sexual harassment, and fights female villain Faora like an equal without even batting an eyelash. He hates violence, and the only time in the entire movie he isn’t trying to stop it is when Zod threatens the only family he has left.

This movie is more violent than the majority of Superhero movies, but upon comparing the fight in Metropolis to the final scene of The Avengers, I think that’s a compliment. (++SPOILERS: Avengers++) In the final scene of Avengers, an alien invasion happens in New York City, an army pours out of a portal in the sky and descends on the city, damaging buildings, endangering bystanders, and causing chaos. The enemies are humanoid but faceless, and we see people fleeing explosions and bystanders narrowly escaping danger but no one is seriously hurt. Not on camera, anyway. Even our heroes on the ground are more or less ignored by the hordes as they invade, making them come off as about as effective as imperial storm troopers and half as smart. Even the “fish in a barrel” scene sees no casualties. Missiles, chunks of building, and alien bodies reign down everywhere, but not one human casualty.

That has less to do with Whedon and more to do with our superhero movies, and it’s reflected in the way we react to the violence in Man of Steel. This violence is, in my opinion, the best possible kind of movie violence. The Boston Marathon bombing wasn’t so horrible because a bomb went off, it was horrible because people were seriously wounded and killed. The men and women who were heroes on that day weren’t heroes because no one there was killed or maimed. Genuine violence is frightening, it’s unrelenting, and it has immediate consequences. Clearly, that’s not the kind of violence that critics want out of a Superman movie, but it’s the responsible kind. Synder puts a realistic number of civilians and officials in harm’s way and they provide a very immediate kind of suspense that battle scenes in these kinds of movies tend to lack. He allows them to be gallant and heroic and frightened in a nearly hopeless situation, and in doing so he gives the human race a quality not often seen in modern movies.

My first note of astonishment about this movie was that no one turns. Not one human tries to cut a deal with Zod, not one human pushes someone else down while running away. Even Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) when asked to turn over Lois, of whom he is clearly not fond, balks. Even the lousy slimy guy from the Daily Planet doesn’t leave the intern behind when he could run away. The soldiers on the ground are happy to embrace Superman with very little cajoling, the minister he encounters who is clearly scared out of his mind still comes up with some good advice for Clark. We see characters make the ultimate sacrifice for the planet, and we see military and government officials acting like we would hope military and government officials would act. This movie loves and believes in the human race, and I believe that is what makes it a genuine Superman movie.

Man of Steel is not Captain America, it’s not a Donner movie, it’s not even a Nolanesque take on Metropolis, though Goyer certainly does take the magic of the universe and turn it into magical realism as was typical of his story-building in the dark knight films. It’s new, and it’s inspired, it’s well-written, sensitive, political, and full of realistic hope in a climate that currently can only find a way to believe in dystopia, and I could not imagine a more fitting vehicle bring The Man of Tomorrow into the present day.

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